That's the quintessential joke we make about therapists, right? Always asking us about our feelings! While Dan, John, Justin, and I do so much more than inquire about our client's emotions, it's also the case that how someone relates to their feelings is often a huge factor in why and how they experience the challenges that bring them into therapy in the first place. We're given all sorts of misinformation about what we're supposed to do with the more difficult emotions like sadness, anger, fear, and guilt, and those less-healthy approaches to managing feelings can cause us distress.
Here is a brief description of the role of emotions that may help you to shift some of the ways you may have framed the feelings you feel:
Why Do We Have Emotions?
Emotions are tied to responses in our bodies, thoughts, and urges to act. But why do we have emotions that overtake us in this way?
- Emotions communicate important information to us and to others. An emotional response like fear or anger tells us something about our environment. Fear tells us that we perceive a threat, anger tells us that we’ve been wronged in some way, shame tells us we’re doing something that our human society deems not okay, and sadness tells us we’ve lost or lack something we value. The automatic facial and behavioral expressions of our emotions tell others about these experiences as well. A mother’s look of horror efficiently teaches her children about a threat in the environment. Angry gestures inform our loved ones that they have done something to upset us and have an opportunity to make amends.
These forms of nonverbal emotional communication are more efficient and effective than verbal communication. We pay attention to and remember information better when emotions are involved – a fact known not just by psychologists but by many whose business it is to communicate. Advertising agencies, notably, spend billions of dollars to produce commercials that bring us to tears, surprise us, or elicit uncontrollable laughter.
- Emotions organize and prepare us for action. The physical sensations and impulses that accompany our emotional responses prepare us to take action in response to whatever has elicited our responses. For example, fear mobilizes us to fight, freeze, or flee. The rush of adrenaline associated with anger helps us to prepare to confront the person who has wronged us. The lethargy we experienced with sadness allows ut to withdraw from other activities so that we can grieve a loss.
Emotions also provide signals that can help us improve our lives: anger and sadness can tell us we need to make some kind of change to live a more satisfying life. Even though we all know how anxiety can get in the way of our lives, a moderate amount of anxiety can motivate us to study for an exam, train for a sporting event, or prepare for a presentation.
- Emotions deepen our experience of life. It’s easy to see how emotions like pride, happiness, and joy enhance our experience of life. But even so-called “negative” emotions, like sadness, are part of a full life. Can we really experience the joy of being with someone we love without also experiencing the sadness of his or her absence? Often sadness and fear help bring us close to other people as we share our vulnerabilities with those closest to us. And experiencing painful emotions can help us develop empathy for other people’s pain and allow us to lean and grow. Although feelings of sadness or fear often feel in the moment like a sign of weakness, as we become more used to these feelings and come to honor them as a badge of a meaningfully lived life, we may find that they are a significant source of strength.
*Often the things that matter to us, like loving people, forming emotional connections, taking on challenging tasks, or supporting others in pain, bring with them emotional pain. In these cases, living a fulfilling life means that we notice the pain and allow it, rather than trying to make it go away. Therapy helps us learn to befriend our range of emotional experiences, making it easier to make these choices and enrich our lives.